My Onöndowa’ga:’ Family History
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
I have decided to start a blog to track my own study of the Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:no.
This section of the website will thus be updated as I work through A Grammar of the Seneca Language by Wallace Chafe, which will increase my understanding of the language at the morphological level.
However, to start, I figured I would give a bit more background on my family history. We did not grow up on the reservation, but nonetheless, we identified with our Native background because of my akso:d, meaning “grandmother,” who would take us to festivals to watch dancers and hear traditional stories and whose shelves were lined with books about the cultures and histories of the Indigenous peoples of the United States. I have more than a few memories of my akso:d taking us to the Tonawanda reservation, where my hakso:d, meaning grandfather, and my aknó’ëh, meaning my mother, would buy cigarettes.
Here is a picture of my akso:d, Alice Pangborn, dated 1948.
Beyond these trips, we did not have much in the way of a connection to our reservation. My siblings and I grew up mostly in Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York. And our grandmother’s earliest memories are set in a foster home in Jamestown, New York. At age ten (or eleven, she is no longer sure), she, along with her three older siblings moved in to a white foster home because there were no Native foster families at the time. They attended public schools in small towns like Burdett and Odessa in central New York, predominantly white towns where they were ridiculed and discriminated against. The only time she did step foot on an Indian school, she recalls, it was at the pretty well-known Thomas Indian School, where they were turned away for not being full-blooded. The history of this institution has been well-documented (see, for instance, Keith Burich's The Thomas Indian School and the 'Irredeemable' Children of New York), so I tell my grandma now that her rejection at Thomas was perhaps for the best. Yet, despite having no direct links to her culture beyond her siblings and her membership card, she was nonetheless taught to at least feel ashamed about it growing up. These feelings largely persisted into adulthood.
The picture below is my akso:d, seated bottom left, with her siblings: sister Nonie seated bottom right, and brothers, Bob and David (left to right) standing in the back. Seated in the center is their foster mother, Mrs. Overly. This picture was taken during, as my grandma writes, "our last year together."
I always wished to learned the Seneca language. And I was disappointed by the lack of opportunities I encountered growing up to do so: even my searches online (back in the late '90s and early-00s when the Internet was not nearly as expansive as it is today) yielded nothing. But this desire stuck with me into adulthood, as I pursued my studies in literature, until I heard about the Public Humanities fellowship sponsored by the New York state's Humanities Council, Humanities New York. Here, I found my opportunity to transform my incipient study of the Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:no into something concrete, i.e. this very website, designed to engage other Onöndowa’ga:’ people living on and off the reservation. This includes my son, he:awak, pictured here just because.
While my language studies and my posts might at times be sporadic, I hope it in some way assists other distance learners of the language. I hope to update the website (as well as this blog) regularly going forward.